Believe it or not, a delicate, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the neck is ultimately responsible for how big you become, how quickly your body burns calories and the functioning of many organs. The gland, called the thyroid, controls all those things by producing vital hormones. But when the thyroid itself goes awry, you may miss the subtle symptoms.
Often, an underactive thyroid, which fails to produce enough hormones, is the problem. Known as hypothyroidism, the condition affects up to millions of Americans, most of them women, and generally occurs between ages 35 and 60. It tends to run in families.
The early symptoms are so slow-growing that about half of the people who have them simply accept them as normal signs of aging, menopause or stress. They include fatigue, forgetfulness, feeling cold all the time and weight gain. As time goes on, other symptoms, such as dry skin, puffy face, droopy eyelids, high cholesterol, depression and difficulty concentrating may occur.
The condition is diagnosed based on those symptoms and a blood test. Treatment is lifelong and involves taking a daily hormone pill. It’s important to find the right dose because too little hormone won’t help, and too much can increase the risk of bone loss and heart disease. Periodic blood tests are necessary to ensure the proper dosage because the body’s need for the hormone can vary.
Sometimes an overeractive thyroid—hyperthyroidism—is the problem. While not as common as an underactive thyroid, it also affects more women than men, usually between ages 30 and 50. The most common form of hyperthyroidism is Graves’ disease, which causes weight loss, nervousness, a rapid heartbeat, diarrhea and shaky hands. In some cases, eye problems—ranging from minor irritation to bulging eyes—develop.
Left untreated, hyperthyroidism can lead to bone loss, heart problems and muscle weakness. Diagnosis is based on symptoms and a blood test. Most doctors recommend treating hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine therapy, which destroys part of the thyroid, thus reducing the hormone levels. Alternatively, drugs can be used to block hormone production or a part of the thyroid can be surgically removed.
Even after hyperthyroidism is treated, hormone levels must be monitored. Often, patients eventually produce too few hormones and require hormone replacement.
Recognizing early symptoms is the first step toward preventing the health problems that thyroid disease can lead to. See your doctor if you suspect you have a problem.